Won over at Shakespeare’s Globe

This was published by the Stonebridge Press/Villager Newspapers this week. A link to the original is at the bottom.

On the banks of the Thames in London, next to the imposing, factory-box shape of the Tate Modern, an art museum, is a smaller structure, round in shape.

Its walls are not very tall, and while there are seats inside, you must purchase a cushion for £1 or a seatback for £3 if you want to be comfortable. That is, of course, if you sit at all: most would rather stand, out in the open air, even in the rain, to get a better view of the action.

Inside the small rounded walls is, of course, modern-day replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.

Not a huge fan of Shakespeare—I appreciate his genius, but would rather read Virginia Woolf—I set off to the Globe to see the history, Henry IV, Part I last week.

I was in England, I reasoned, and therefore had to see a Shakespeare play. I begrudgingly paid for my seat cushion and headed up three flights of stairs to the top loft, which overlooks the stage—as well as the three levels of all the other wooden lofts, and the standing area below. There are only small loft boxes of stadium-style benches; the closest views of the stage are standing-room only.

The view from the lofts is, however, great—since the theatre, decorated with period flags and crests, is so small.

But the view from the standing area? Even better.

Groups of people clustered near the stage, their chins reaching its floor, as they peered over at the actors onstage. In a moment, other actors in period dress were running through the crowd and onto the stage as well, engaging the audience as they ran past.

When Falstaff—a cowardly knight in the play—delivered his soliloquies, he played off the audience, making direct eye contact, pausing for moments of comedic effect, and improving movements to keep the laughter coming, or to suspend the state of awe.

As the night sky dimmed, stage lights came on—shining on both the actors, and the audience.

Half the fun came from people-watching in lulls when I’d had enough Shakespeare-style dialogue for the moment. One guy was mysteriously carted out by security for some unknown reason down in the standing area; others laughed and moved closer, or gazed around at the other audience members, too.

The Globe, in its day, functioned as a theatre for regular, not elite, people—whose energy the casts played off in performance, much like it does today.

The result is nothing short of spectacular. Instead of sitting in a dark auditorium merely watching the action in front of you, at the Globe you are in a small space—and feel like a part of the action.

What better place than the original Globe to see a Shakespeare play? I mused, as I first entered the premises, navigating between food carts in the cobble-stone waiting area outside the walls of the theatre.

Well, that’s what I thought—that the Globe was the original, or at least sitting on the original foundation or something—until my class group got to sit down with the director of the Henry IV performance, who gave us a history of the theatre.

The original Globe, built the 1590s, burned down in 1613, during a performance of Henry VIII. It was rebuilt, but Puritan rule over England forced it to close in 1642, and two short years later, it was demolished.

So much for seeing the real thing.

Built 14 years ago, the current theatre is near—but not exactly in the same spot—as the original. It was, when it was still on the drawing board, accused of being a cheap, Disney-like tourist trap that wouldn’t produce good shows. After all, the man who had advocated for rebuilding since 1949 it was an American (director Sam Wanamaker).

A Yankee trying to remake the landmark theatre of the British’s best-known playwright? You can imagine the difficulties he faced. After he died, though, people stepped up to the plate, and the theatre was finally opened in 1997.

But the financiers of the venture insisted upon putting in a restaurant, pub, and gift shop in the theatre since they expected tickets to the shows would never sell out—but expected that tourist’s dollars might keep the theatre alive. After all, they reasoned, why would anyone want to go to the new Globe, instead of seeing a play performed by the established Royal Shakespeare Company?

But the Globe won visitors—from the U.K. and other countries—over. It sold out every show in its first season.

And, after seeing how the engaging acting and atmosphere of the Globe’s Henry IV won over a wary Shakespeare reader like me, it’s easy to see why it continues to sell out year after year.

To read the original column in PDF form, please see the Blackstone Valley Tribune, one of the papers in which it was published, online: http://www.theheartofmassachusetts.com/pdf/BLA.2010.08.06.pdf

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